Sexual Addiction: Stages of Recovery

Posted on August 9, 2012


“There is a predictable process of recovery.  It has its own stages of development, milestones or progress, and tasks to accomplish.”  Patrick Carnes, PhD (2012)

The course of sexual addiction recovery progresses through a series of overlapping stages (Carnes, 2012).  The first stage is the Developing Stage and actually begins prior to the start of recovery.  This is the point where one becomes aware of the fact that one’s sexual behavior is becoming problematic.  The Developing Stage may include some sub-stages (ambivalence, recognition, and despair).  The addict may start to have ambivalent feelings about his or her sexual acting out, begin to recognize there is a problem, and/or experience despair of being able to overcome compulsive sexual behaviors.  The Developing Stage may not be enough to cause one to seek support.  The start of recovery most often begins with the Crisis/Decision Stage.  Something bad has happened.  A partner has discovered sexual acting out and the addict must make a decision to enter recovery.  The Crisis/Decision Stage is generally the shortest in duration of the stages of recovery.  Sometimes it is as little as one day.  I sometimes get calls from new clients within days of a partner discovering the behavior.

Overlapping with the Crisis/Decision Stage is the Shock Stage in which the addict (in addition to the partner) cannot believe that he or she was engaging in those activities.  As recovery proceeds, the addict works through the Grief Stage.  As with other addictions, the sexual behavior has often been a mask or an escape from the deep sorrow and pain of life.  The addict must work through these pains.  The addict’s own “grievance story” needs to be identified and processed.  This is the time at which there is the greatest risk of relapse.  Overlapping and following the Grief Stage is the Repair Stage in which the addict begins to reengineer his or her life.  Finally, there is the Growth Stage marked by a massive shift in relationships.  Free from the addiction, one can develop the close secure connections that were not possible when the addictive behavior was in control.

In all, this is a process of developing a healthy sexuality, healthy relationships, and working through the pain of life.  Doing the work requires courage and a ruthless commitment to reality.

Not everyone who has viewed pornography or had an affair is by definition a sex addict.  Devastating as these things are to a relationship, they may or may not be part of an addiction cycle.  For a free quick assessment, go to and take the SAST (sexual addiction screening test).  This is an assessment that has been normalized with those with sexual addictions and those who do not have sexual addictions.  Your score on the assessment can give you a view to whether the pattern of your responses is more in line with the addicted group or the not addicted group.  Note that this is an assessment tool and not a diagnosis.  If you have a concern (or your partner has a concern), a therapist with appropriate training can help you assess your situation and develop a plan for recovery as appropriate.


Carnes, P. (2012). Certified sex addiction therapist CSAT: Module 1 training manual. Carefree, AZ: International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals.

“I work with individuals, couples, and families to help develop secure connections
and craft manageable solutions.”

More information is available on my website  I am also available for speaking engagements, seminars, and retreats

Scott Wood is a registered marriage and family therapist intern (IMF67385) and is supervised by Dr. Melinda Reinicke, Psychologist (Psy11011).